Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of those novels that seems impossible to stage. It’s a tangled tale that takes place across dimensions, flitting between the real and the imagined, the domestic and the cosmic. It features civilised family dinners and epic battles with giant, many-legged monstrosities.
And you’d think it would be doubly-hard to capture all of that on the relatively meagre space of the Dorfman, the National Theatre’s smaller, more experimental stage. But director Katy Rudd pulls it off, employing a dizzying array of techniques, from puppetry to conjuring tricks, to recreate Gaiman’s flights of fancy.
It follows a 12-year-old boy who befriends the eccentric family – a grandmother, mother and daughter – who own the farm next door. Essentially a bunch of friendly witches, they give him a glimpse into the world beyond the world, which blows his bookish mind – at least until a malevolent entity follows him home and insinuates itself into his family, befriending his little sister and having an affair with his dad.
Like Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett, Gaiman has an incredible talent for writing about adult themes in a childlike way, and like those authors, his work feels relevant no matter what your age (although the recommended 12-years-and-above is wise: he’s also great at capturing just how terrifying things can seem when you’re a kid).
It’s fun to peel back the onion layers: on one level The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple fantasy story; on another a rumination on the power of imagination and the strangeness of adolescence; deeper still it’s a semi-autobiographical account of Gaiman’s upbringing in the Church of Scientology.
However you read it, it’s a rousing evening of theatre: emotional, exciting and cathartic. Die-hard Gaiman fans – of whom there are legion – will no doubt sell out the run, although I do wonder what might have been achieved had this production been granted the freedom of the National’s bigger stages.